Industrial agriculture | essential and risky

Industrial agriculture feeds most of us. 

Almost all of the grain and most of the livestock that feed the 4 billion or so people who buy their food rather than grow it themselves, comes from large-scale or intensive agricultural activities operated on an industrial scale.

When agriculture relies on inputs from mechanical tillage, fertilizer application or irrigation it is more efficient per unit of production to grow crops on large fields — often the bigger the better.

Even when agriculture hit snags such as pest outbreaks or crop diseases, it is more efficient to fly a crop-duster aircraft over a large field than it is to fly it over a small one.

Large fields make it cost effective to use crop-duster aircraft to apply pesticides and fertilizer to improve yields

It is also more efficient to rear livestock for part of their lives in a feedlot where the food they eat is grown, gathered, pelletized and delivered to the animals rather than let them wander about wasting energy to find their own food. 

A herd of cattle in a feedlot is far easier to control than one out on rangeland with much reduced costs of herding, transport and infrastructure.

Animal health can be monitored and weak or sick animals are easily removed or treated.

While most cattle begin life out on rangeland many spend their final 6-12 months in a feedlot | cattle being curious on a paddock in rural NSW, Australia

Agricultural efficiency

In most industrial agriculture practices everything happens in a concentrated way — activities take less time, are readily mechanized and cost less in energy and human effort per unit of production.

In short they are easier.

And easy usually translates to higher returns per unit of effort = profit.

In a world where the economic model requires that capital be mobilized to fuel commerce there is a fundamental requirement for profit. And in agriculture economy of scale and intensification become powerful forces.

A feedlot generates beef patties for burgers far faster than from purely range fed animals thanks to the efficiency of the feedlot system in converting plant to animal biomass.

When the cost of pelleted grain is high, the grazier may have an advantage but when efficiency is measured as the conversion of livestock into profit it takes a lot to catch up the benefits of speed.

When production is concentrated the supply chain can be more efficient.

Buyers and retail suppliers have fewer transactions and transport is simplified. A grain truck that shuttles between one large silo and the packaging plant can be larger and far more cost effective per ton of grain than transportation from a dozen small producers.


Industrial agriculture fits our economic model.

Most of what we do is commercial. It may not be easy to accept but most human activity is in one way or another based on a competitive premise. It fits that agriculture should be competitive too.

The best way we know of generating supply to meet demand — and with food security and global population growth there is no shortage of demand for food — is to pay for the goods and services.

This generates a familiar motivation through the opportunity for suppliers to turn a profit.

The environmental issue

Efficiency is at the heart of profitability. Conversion to sales achieved quickly at the lowest effort is key to profit. If you have speed and low effort then all you  need is sales.

So profitability is one reason for industrial agriculture.

Another is scale.

Each and every day there are 7 billion people and their pets to feed…

There are 70 million dogs and 74 million cats in the US and their owners spend roughly $56 billion a year looking after them.

It is not easy to do this in kitchen gardens or smallholdings. Not because the products can’t be grown from small-scale, low input, and subsistence agriculture that often have a tight hold on inputs and can be quite efficient.

The problem is distribution.

How to get produce at scale to where the people live when most of the people don’t grow their own food and live far from where the food is grown. Industrial agriculture is as much about industrial scale distribution and supply chains as it is about large-scale or intensive farming.

Other environmental values are squeezed to allow for this efficiency but the real environmental issue is how precarious this production system really is, as it also puts a squeeze on the resilience of the environment.

Pragmatology of industrial agriculture

150 years ago most people lived on the land.

There were very few large towns and nothing anywhere near the size of modern cities. In the 1500’s the largest city in the world was Beijing with a population of around 700,000 people although most major centres had less than 200,000 inhabitants.  

Today less than half the global population lives on the land. In the US 83% of people live in urban areas — one in five rural dwellers is typical for Western societies. And there are 500 cities with more than 1 million inhabitants and 50 of these are home to over 7 million people.

There are more people living in greater Tokyo today [37 million] than there were across the entire world in 2000 BC when David became king of the Israelites.

It would be impossible to feed this many people without industrial scale agriculture.

The irony is that without industrial agriculture we would not have so many mouths to feed.

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